Stories from the Wilderness: The Daughters of Zelophehad

Scripture: Numbers 27:1-11

This Easter season, we’ve been journeying through the wilderness with the Israelites, asking ourselves what their stories from that time might have to teach us now in our own Covid-induced wilderness period.  By the time we get to today’s story, the last in our series, the Israelites are nearing the end of their wilderness wandering. They’re looking ahead; they’re making plans; their good future in the Promised Land is no longer just a far-off dream but actually beginning to come into view.

And to be honest, when I planned out this series, I kind of thought that it would be for us now too.  I thought that our time in the wilderness would be coming to an end – maybe not the end of Covid-19 altogether, but at least we’d be over the first hump, at least we’d be getting somewhat back to normal for a time.

Instead, even as things do begin to open up a bit around us, each day seems to bring new realization that normal is a long way off.

Surely, in 40 years in the wilderness, there must have been times when the Israelites thought the same: it won’t be too much longer now.  It can’t be, this isn’t sustainable, not in the long term; surely, the Promised Land can’t be that far away.  And still the wilderness stretched around them, as far as the eye could see.

I imagine there must have been some grief in that for them, in those moments of realization.  I know there is for me.  All these things that have been survivable for a time are turning into bigger questions: When will my daughter be able to go back to preschool?  What about all the things she’s missing out on in the meantime? When will we be able to spend time with family like normal? When will we be able to have dinner with our friends? When will we be able to gather for worship in person like we used to, and actually have it be recognizable as worship? And with those questions often comes a wave of despair, because none of it was supposed to be like this, certainly not for the long term.  The wilderness is no longer just an interruption, not just something to journey through.  It’s something to make our peace with.

So many times in Numbers we’ve read about the wilderness as a place where the Israelites butt heads with God, but remember, the wilderness is also a place where they encounter God’s grace and provision. Every day they’re fed with manna that falls from heaven, even as they doubt and fear and wish they could go back to Egypt.  When there is no water, God provides water.  When they trek through dangerous territory with enemies on every side, God is with them.

Good things can happen in the wilderness, too.

And then there is today’s story.  As a census is taken of a new generation of Israelites and plans for dividing up the land across the Jordan River are announced – land to each tribe and each clan within a tribe and each family within a clan – five sisters realize there’s a problem.  You’ve probably never heard of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, the daughters of Zelophehad, unless you either really know your Bible or are into feminist biblical commentary, or both.  But the author of Numbers considers them important enough to record their names, an honor not always bestowed on women in the Bible.  They are their father’s only children.  By custom, if not explicitly by law, they can’t inherit land.  And this means their dead father’s portion of the land will go to his brothers, and this means, effectively, that their father’s name and legacy will be blotted out among his people.

And that doesn’t seem fair.

So they stand before Moses and the gathered community and speak, representing themselves.

Our father died for his own sin, they say.  They mean simply that he was part of the older generation that was told back in chapter 14 that it would not get to enter the Promised Land.  He was not, however, part of the much worse rebellion against Moses and Aaron’s leadership.  He has just as much a right to a legacy as any other imperfect, complaining, fearful person there in the wilderness.

We should inherit that land, they say.

But of course that’s not how it’s done.

And you could imagine – I could imagine – Moses telling them to take a seat, let the menfolk worry about all this, ladies. And after all what they’re proposing isn’t what God said, when God was giving the directions; and what’s more, there’s lots of important and immediate stuff to think about now, as we stand here on the precipice of crossing into the Promised Land, we need to deal with those things, let’s not get sidetracked.  I’m tired, it’s too much, let’s just get through this, we can work out those details on the other side, when things are more settled.

And the truth is somewhere there I’ve crossed from Moses’ supposed response into mine.  Because this is how I feel about a lot of things these days – I can’t handle this now, I’ll worry about that later, when things are settled. Right now we just have to get through this.

And I know that’s normal, because this is, after all, a pandemic; this is, after all, collective trauma; I am, in many ways right now and like many others, trying to sustain the unsustainable. But as it becomes clear to me that there is still a lot of wilderness left, I’m also beginning to realize that I need to envision what this future looks like, and not just the one I thought would be.  I need to start answering some of those grief-filled questions about preschool and family and friends and yes, even church, to the best of my ability.  Those things may not look like normal for a while, so how do we move forward now?

And this is actually how Moses answers – with a willingness to consider that positive, forward-thinking changes might be able to happen now.

He brings the case of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah, the daughters of Zelophehad, before God, and God, perhaps surprisingly, says they’re right.

Yes, God says to Moses, give these women their land!  And not just them – if any man dies and doesn’t have a son, give his inheritance to his daughters.

And OK, it’s not perfect, by modern standards; the daughters are still Plan B in this scenario; the whole thing is still about keeping land in the family along patriarchal lines – but I love this story.  I love it first for how when God hears their case you can almost see God cocking God’s head to one side and saying, “Hmmm, I never really thought about it like that before!” I think we talk a lot, sometimes, about yielding to the will of God as if it’s some unchangeable force, and certainly it may often require giving up some of our own personal hopes and ambitions and prejudices and grudges – but when it comes to that arc of history bending toward justice, at least, I suspect sometimes God might welcome our suggestions regarding the details.

And I love it, also, because it shows us new things can happen in the wilderness – for the Israelites, and for us.

The time for taking steps forward is now.  The time for imagining possibilities is now.  The time for moving along that arc of history toward justice is now.  The time for loving, serving, and welcoming our neighbors is now.

Might these things look different than they would have otherwise, if none of this had ever happened? Well, I don’t know how they could look the same.  And that does require some imagination, and it might require a bit of chutzpah – but luckily, God seems to appreciate those qualities in God’s people.

I’m coming to learn, all these weeks in, that life now isn’t just on pause.  We’ll be here in the wilderness for a while.  And there is grief in that, for everything we’ve lost and still will lose.  Believe me, I know.

But there’s hope, too.

Because God still goes with us, and manna still falls, and possibilities abound if we can speak them into being, and changes can be made for the better – not just in the Promised Land, but even here, even now, even in the wilderness.

Stories from the Wilderness: The Diviner and the Donkey

Scripture: Numbers 22:2-12

This story from the wilderness begins, once again, with fear.

This time it’s not the fear of the Israelite people wandering in the wilderness.  Rather, I mean, it is not their fear – it is fear of them.  The same God who last week was deploying the poisonous snakes has recently granted the Israelites some military victories against the nearby nations who threaten their progress through the wilderness.  Moab, the nation just across the Jordan River from the Promised Land, is next on the list.  Moab’s king, Balak, has heard what has happened to the other nations that have tried to thwart the Israelites’ journey.  And he is afraid.  There is fear from many sides, in the wilderness.

Mostly, in stories from the Hebrew Bible, it’s natural for us to identify with the Israelite people. But today I’m going to ask us to imagine ourselves in Balak’s place.

Balak sends some royal messengers to a local diviner named Balaam.  “Please come and curse this people for me,” he says, because that’s what fear does so much of the time, it makes you look for people to curse.

Balaam says he’ll confer with God overnight and let them know.  It’s interesting to note that Balaam is not himself an Israelite, but he talks to God – to YHWH, specifically, the Israelites’ god.  That night YHWH speaks to him and says don’t go.  “You shall not curse the people,” YHWH says, “for they are blessed.”

Balak isn’t satisfied with that, so he sends some more important messengers, who promise to make it worth Balaam’s while if he will only come with them and curse the Israelites.  Even if Balaam could be bought, however, it wouldn’t change God’s answer.

I confess that when I put this story in the lineup for this series, the only thing I remembered about it was that there was a talking donkey – the donkey comes later. Charming and amusing, right? A break from all of the more serious stuff we’ve been talking about lately.  But as I went back and read the passage, it was God’s words that stuck in my mind: You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.

Fast several thousand years or so to modern day America. Here we are, still in the thick of a global pandemic.  You’d think that a pandemic would have the power to bring us together.  Instead, especially as the country begins to reopen, it seems to just be one more reason to hate each other: the people who think it’s all just a hoax, the people who want to sacrifice the grandparents to the economy, the people who want to throw away our freedoms…I could go on.

Instead of coming together, it seems, we’ve only found more reasons to curse one another.

And these sermons are always so hard to preach because I hate cheap calls for unity, which always seem to paper over the concerns of the most vulnerable and marginalized people.  I know that literal lives are at stake here.  I know the structural injustice at play.  I don’t mean the economy is more important than lives – although it affects real lives, too.  I don’t mean that it’s OK to carry a gun around because you don’t want to wear a mask.  I don’t mean to defend mealy-mouthed leadership that has put us so far behind other countries in addressing this virus.

What I know is that I see and hear people calling each other idiots, hoping that karma does its thing, making caricatures of each other.

Now, as always, we need to hold strong to our values that protect the vulnerable and the marginalized first – including those who don’t have a choice about whether to go back to work or what conditions they’ll find there.  The name-calling, though, the making of straw men, the lack of capacity for nuance – that doesn’t really seem to be what Jesus calls us to.  Jesus, of course, says “Bless those who curse you.”

Or, in older words with a similar echo: “Don’t curse the people, because they are blessed.”

What if the people God loves and blesses are the ones we see as our enemies?  [PAUSE]

Let’s see what happens when Balaam does decide to go with Balak’s messengers.

 

[Read: Numbers 22:22-35]

 

Has God ever just stood in front of you like that?

Well, probably not exactly like that. But maybe there are some times that God has needed to kind of get in your face, and say hey, this isn’t the road I want you to go down, here.

I have a group of friends from college who I’ve been doing weekly Zoom hangouts with.  Last week we started to talk about reopening and some of the decisions being made in different places and how people were responding and whether Americans were or were not, in fact, capable of nuance.  I launched confidently into my own thoughts on the matter, and then one of my friends stopped me and said, “I don’t think that’s true.” And it turns out we disagreed on some of these topics: how responsible leadership is being, how long we can do all this staying inside stuff, how well we can actually trust people to follow the rules.

I bristled at first, because that’s what my bubble has conditioned me to do when I encounter someone outside of it; but then it was this moment for me of, oh, right, not everyone who has a different perspective from me here is an idiot or a gun-toting conspiracy theorist; it’s possible for smart, compassionate people to have nuanced conversations about this without everyone retreating to their sides; it’s possible that we don’t have to be enemies.

Do I still think she’s wrong? Yeah.  Do I worry about the implications? Some.  Do I think what she wants for herself and for her neighbors is right-hearted? Yeah. I do.

So the next time I’m tempted to curse someone who disagrees with me, I’ll think of her, for whom I want nothing but good.

I think sometimes God works like that.

In the end, God tells Balaam to continue with his journey.  Say only what I tell you, God tells Balaam.  Not what Balak wants to hear. Not what they’re paying you for. Not even what you might think yourself – but what I tell you.

And when Balaam speaks, those who were supposed to be cursed will find themselves blessed instead.

Stories From the Wilderness: The Bronze Snake

Scripture: Numbers 21:4-9

You might know by now that I tend to love the stories in the Hebrew Bible that kind of leave you going “what?” I don’t know if you join me in my love for those stories.  Some people don’t.  But to me, these are the stories that make the larger story of our faith come alive.  They make me laugh and sometimes squawk with indignance and scratch my head.  I had a professor in seminary who said that some of what we read in the Bible is the kind of thing you’d tell eight-year-olds over the campfire; this is how tradition got passed on.

It’s often hard to preach on these stories, though, because they can also be pretty challenging in how they depict God. In today’s reading, we have God sending poisonous snakes to bite and kill people in the wilderness after they complained about manna one too many times – again.  We’ve gotten used to this kind of theological challenge in Numbers by now, and honestly, yes, I do sometimes question my decision to preach through this particular book in the midst of a pandemic.

God, in the book of Numbers, can often come across petty. You want meat? Eat it until you’re sick of it.  Don’t like the bread I gave you? Here are some snakes.  I can love these stories because I hold this vision of God somewhat loosely.  I think we can clearly see the Israelite people’s understanding of God evolving and changing over time in the Bible – and no, I don’t just mean in the New Testament, I mean across the span of the Hebrew Bible too – and I’m happy to talk more about this sometime if you’d like.

I believe that God has always been the God we meet in Jesus, even in the Old Testament.  I do not believe that Coronavirus is like a poisonous snake God sent because God got mad at us. I do believe that a book like Numbers can have a lot to tell us about ourselves in relation to God.  And it also seems to me that a story of plague and healing in the wilderness is pretty relevant to today.

Plague – illness – is also over the news these days, but so is healing.  There are, among the horror stories and dire warnings, stories of survivors being wheeled out of the hospital to applause after weeks on a ventilator. There are stories of promising new drugs being tested, and potential vaccines going to the next stage of trials.

So many of our hopes, right now, are focused on the healing of a disease. Including mine. But there’s more to the healing we need right now than that, isn’t there?  There’s more to the cultural trauma, the economic impact, the individual emotional toll than any vaccine will fix.  And meanwhile, the old problems, the things we used to talk about, haven’t gone away, even if we talk about them less now.

This week there was another story in the news, and it wasn’t about Coronavirus at all. It was about a young black man named Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed in February while out for a run, because two white men with guns decided he looked like a robbery suspect. Neither of the men were arrested until this week, after a video of his killing went viral.  I read that story, and later in the day I went out for a run.  Being white, I did not fear for my own life.

On a friend’s link to the story on Facebook, someone commented, “There is a sickness in this country, and it’s worse than Coronavirus.” And they were right, because while this may be a long and costly two years, Coronavirus will come and go.  But the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and the racism that so insidiously spreads its roots in our hearts and minds will continue to be with us for a long time.

And it’s no secret by now, I think, that Coronavirus has only served to highlight that racism and the structural injustices our society is built on.  You might say that Covid-19 has magnified our national pre-existing condition.  Maybe you’ve heard that in DC, black residents have been diagnosed with Covid-19 at twice the rate of white residents – a trend which is reflected in other areas of the country as well.[1]  It’s people of color in our country, not exclusively but disproportionately, who don’t have jobs that allow them to stay safe at home, who have to choose between going to work sick or not being able to feed their families, and who are more likely to suffer from underlying health conditions in the first place.[2]  And then there are those who still have no choice but to go to work at places that refuse to make sure they are safe, as the virus rips through meat packing plants.

Last week I talked to you about fear, and the largely personal fear I’ve experienced since “pandemic” became a household word back in March.  And I acknowledged, then, that there are many others who have more right to their fear than I do.  There are also those, like Ahmaud Arbery, or like anyone who struggles daily to put food on the table, for whom the threat of Covid-19 may not be the biggest threat to their existence they face when they walk out of their house on any given morning.  The old problems have not gone away just because there is a new one.  In Numbers, God sends a plague; but it seems to me we as a society can be pretty good at creating our own plagues.

Maybe this isn’t the kind of comforting sermon you were hoping for today.  It’s a hard season to be in the business of good news.  Often reading these stories in the news tends to lead me farther down that road of despair that, the one that just says everything is going to hell and there’s nothing I can do about. And that’s probably how it felt there in the wilderness, too, when after everything they’ve been through, all of a sudden there are snakes to contend with.

In Numbers, the people repent, and they ask God to take the snakes away.  And God, in response, tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole, and when anyone gets bitten, they can look at the bronze snake and live.

I always thought this was a strange and kind of annoying response.  Why go through all this rigamarole? Why can’t God just take the snakes away?

But maybe healing isn’t as easy as that.  Maybe God doesn’t just take the problem away.  Maybe we have a part to play in it all, too.  For ourselves, for others, for our community, our country, our world.  Maybe we don’t just have to sit there, as paralyzed as we may feel.

There are those of you who may have reason to fear for your own lives, or the lives of your sons, when doing something as innocuous as walking or running around your neighborhood.  And there are those of you whose skin looks like mine, who are probably more shaped and formed by the racism we live and breathe than we’d even like to believe about ourselves.  And our jobs are not the same here – white people, it’s our job to undo this thing that our ancestors started – but there is plenty of need for healing in this world, from the physical to the spiritual to the structural – and plenty of bronze snakes for us to hold up to counter the poison.

I never thought that “speaking out” had much effect until this week I saw how the massive outcry about the lack of justice for Ahmaud Arbery led to the arrest of his killers.  Being aware matters.  Talking about the sickness matters.  Learning how to recognize and address the sickness in yourself matters – in fact, I’m going to make some resources available on how to do this.  Using whatever gifts you have to work for a better world matters. God will work with us, but God won’t do it all for us.  Sometimes healing is our job, too, and sometimes it takes repentance – not just to stop a virus, but to stop some of the things the virus shows us about ourselves.

Did you know Jesus once compared himself to the bronze snake? It’s in John 3, in a conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus.  Jesus healed a lot of people in his time.  He knew that physical suffering was real, and that it wasn’t what God wanted for anyone.  He also knew that healing was about more than that: that it was about repentance, and forgiveness, and liberation, and love, and abundant and eternal life.

And he tells us it can happen.  And he calls us to be part of it.  Even now.

 

 

[1] https://dcist.com/story/20/04/08/black-d-c-residents-have-been-diagnosed-with-covid-19-at-twice-the-rate-of-their-white-peers/

[2] https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/04/coronavirus-inequality-america.html

 

Stories From the Wilderness: The Fears We Face

Scripture: Numbers 13:1-33

I don’t know if this will sound familiar to you, but I’ve been noticing a kind of pattern in myself lately: during the day, I’m mostly fine.  I’ve more or less settled into the way life is these days – the balance of work and family while all of us are home, the virtual preschool sessions, Zoom yoga on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It is stressful and exhausting, but it’s easy enough to let the reason for all of this fade into the background. For the most part, during the day, I am not actively afraid.

But then night comes, and I’ll spend a few hours catching up on work, and then instead of going straight to bed I’ll scroll through Facebook one last time, and I’ll inevitably see some headline about the latest newly discovered way Coronavirus is killing us, or a first-person account by a healthcare worker in New York, and I know I shouldn’t click on the article, it’s not going to tell me anything helpful right now, but I do, I click on it anyway, and that’s when the fear spiral begins.

I am working on being the kind of person who can just give all her fears up to God and be done with them. I regret to tell you that I am not there yet.  From what I understand, though, I’m not alone.  Fear is part of finding ourselves in the wilderness.

In today’s story from the wilderness, God instructs Moses to send spies on a little recon mission into the land of Canaan, which is the land that God has promised as a home to the Israelite people now wandering somewhere east of the Jordan River.  God tells Moses to select a leader from each tribe to go, and Moses does.  Moses tells them to inspect the land.  What is it like? What kind of food is growing there? What about the people, do they seem strong? All of this information will be relevant when the Israelites finally do cross over the river and attempt to take the land for themselves.  So the leaders go, and they find that it is indeed a good land, flowing with milk and honey just like God promised them, and they load up their arms with grapes and pomegranates and figs as they prepare to head back.

Forty days after they left, they arrive back at the wilderness camp, and they make their report.  There’s good news and there’s bad news, they say.  The land really is flowing with milk and honey. But also, there are people there. Strong people, descendants of the legendary warriors the Anakites. And their cities are like fortresses.

You can imagine that the second part of this report is not what anyone wants to hear.

A couple of the leaders try to be encouraging but the others are just getting started, and their story seems to grow each time they repeat it: “The land devours its residents!  We saw giants (the Nephilim) there! We’re like grasshoppers compared to them! We can’t go fight them!” And I think I get it, because this feels like the old familiar fear spiral.

And, the story goes, “the entire community raised their voice and the people wept that night.” Because fear is contagious, isn’t it?

Well, as I told you last time, a huge theme in Numbers is the people complaining and God getting mad that the people are complaining, so maybe you can guess what’s next: the people wish they were back in Egypt.  God tells Moses that God is inclined to just wipe everyone out and start all over again.  Moses manages to talk God down, but there will still be consequences: none of the people who doubted and tested God will get to set foot in the Promised Land.

As per usual for Numbers, the punishment seems pretty harsh, and I don’t think we need to apply it too readily to ourselves: there are plenty of other times in the Bible where people are afraid – think of the disciples, freaking out in a boat in a storm with a sleeping Jesus.  When Jesus wakes up, he’s disappointed that they’ve been so afraid – but he also calms the storm for them.  The God I believe in, the God we meet in Jesus, can handle our fear. But God also wants better for us than fear.

There is a difference between acknowledging the reality of a given situation, and fear that spirals and consumes us and makes our enemies out to be giants. Scoping out the reality of the situation is what the Israelite spies were instructed to do, so they could be prepared. We should be afraid enough of what this virus can do to care for our neighbor’s life and not be reckless with our own.  What God doesn’t want is for fear to get in the way of the promise of abundant life that God offers us, which is what it does in Numbers, for the people who no longer want to enter the land they’ve been journeying toward this whole time.

I know from experience, though, that it can be hard to discern the line between acknowledging reality and getting sucked into the fear spiral.  Is wiping down your groceries with Clorox taking reasonable precaution or giving in to fear? Is disinfecting the outside of your hand sanitizer bottle with hand sanitizer reasonable precaution or living in fear? (Asking for a friend.)

I am reasonably young, healthy, working, and able to mostly stay at home: surely there are others who have more right to their fear than I do, if fear is something that can be earned.  Still, what is there to say when the report comes back and the enemy really is formidable, and there’s no dismissing it or minimizing it?

“The Lord is with us,” Joshua tells the Israelites, “don’t be afraid.” And, the story goes, the people tried to stone him, which says something about how we try to hold on to our fear.

Not too long ago I read the same question in a letter to my favorite advice columnist, Carolyn Hax. The letter writer had one parent with a terminal illness in an assisted living facility, and another parent calling in tears about what Covid-19 would mean for the first parent.  The letter writer worked in public health, and they wrote: “My parent wants me to tell them it’s going to be OK.  But what do I say when I look at the numbers all day long and it’s clear it’s probably not going to be OK?”

Carolyn said first you acknowledge the pain. But then, she says, you “promise what you can still promise: that you and your healthy parent will get through this together, emotionally if not physically; that you all love each other and always will. It [may not] all be OK, but in time, you as people and as a family will be OK.”[1]

I thought that there was an echo of the Gospel in that: that it is true that any one or many of my fears might come to pass; nothing is guaranteed, except that God is with us and loves us, and because of that, no matter what happens, we, as God’s people, will be OK.  Death is real, but it doesn’t get to win.  Death is powerful, but it’s not the biggest or most powerful thing there is.  There’s an empty tomb that promises us that.

I know from experience that the wilderness is a place where fears tend to find us, where they wrap their tentacles around us.  It’s the newness of the terrain, the uncertainty of how long it’s all going to last, the provision that comes only day to day.  The wilderness makes our enemies out to be giants, and they only get bigger each time we rehash the story.

But God wants more for us than fear. The wilderness is also a place where God leads us, and loves us, and where we learn to trust, little by little, that God is bigger than the things of which we are afraid.

I, for one, am trying to remember that.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/carolyn-hax-when-you-know-the-awful-truth-how-do-you-reassure-someone/2020/04/15/92f842ea-7b71-11ea-9bee-c5bf9d2e3288_story.html